Prescription Drug Use During Pregnancy Can Lead to Birth Defects

In the United States, one out of every 33 babies is born with a birth defect. This shocking statistic is in part the  result of a society that has become extremely dependent on  prescription drugs to treat everything from depression to high blood pressure to acne and more. Although  risks to the patient  can be studied with some degree of accuracy before marketing a product  to the public, scientists cannot ethically study the effects of drugs on an unborn child. As a result, a  large group of medications known as category C drugs presents an unknown amount of risk to babies when their mothers  take these medications during pregnancy. In fact, the FDA reports that fewer than 10% of all drugs approved since 1980 have sufficient data regarding  safety to the fetus when used by pregnant women.

How Does the FDA Classify Medications?

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) uses a rating system to classify the potential risks to an unborn child when medications are taken during pregnancy. The categories are as follows:

  • Category A  - Considered the safest class of drugs during pregnancy;  birth defects have not been observed  in animal or human offspring  who were exposed to these medications  in  utero.
  • Category B  - No known risks of birth defects have been discovered in human children.
  • Category C  - Animal tests show the potential for birth defects but there is insufficient data regarding  safety in humans.
  • Category D  - Drugs  known to cause birth defects in human babies.
  • Category X  - Medications that pose an extremely high risk of birth defects;  should never  be used during pregnancy.

Clearly, category C drugs are a Pandora's box of surprises for pregnant women. Although many doctors still prescribe category C drugs to their pregnant patients with the belief that the benefits may outweigh the risks, the ultimate decision and  responsibly to care for children lies with the parents. Extreme caution is recommended before continuing or beginning any category C medication during pregnancy. Safer, alternative treatments may provide many of the same benefits without  risk to the baby or side effects for the mother.

Historical Cases of Drugs Known to Cause Birth Defects

Many drugs have been prescribed to pregnant women in the past  before the adverse effects to their babies were  understood.  A few examples include:

  • Antibiotics  such as  Chloramphenicol,  Cipro,  Levaquin, and  Trimethoprim;
  • The antidepressant  Venlafaxine;
  • YAZ  oral contraceptives (these are contraindicated while pregnant or breastfeeding but the high failure rate of the medication means that some babies are exposed to the drug before their mothers realize they are pregnant);
  • The sedative and anti-nausea medication  thalidomide which was widely prescribed during pregnancy in the 1950's;
  • Accutane, a medication available since the 1980's and prescribed to treat acne.

The above list represents only a small fraction of prescription drugs that have  been discovered to cause a certain degree of harm to unborn children. Considering the FDA clearly states that less than 10% of drugs on the market have enough data to  understand the effects on the fetuses of pregnant women, it may seem surprising that mothers are still willing to take unnecessary chances.

Over the Counter Medications Also Pose a Risk

While a child is developing within a mother's uterus, he or she is growing and changing more rapidly than during any other phase of life. As a result, medications of any type pose a greater risk of harm to these unborn children than to any other group within the population. Even over the counter medications such as Ibuprofen have the potential to create a less than desirable  outcome. Whenever possible, avoidance of medications  during pregnancy is the best way to ensure the development of a healthy baby and an event-free pregnancy.

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